A few weeks ago, I was fulfilling a photo request for Find a Grave at a cemetery not far from my home. I’d been there other times. But on that day, I found something I’ve never seen before. On the side of the base of a grave marker was a box of what looked like human hair.
Inside a clear plastic Caboodles makeup box was a bag containing what appeared to be two ponytails of blonde human hair. It didn’t look like fake hair.
Nothing about the grave marker indicates why it’s there. The deceased was 47 when he died in 2006. He’s buried beside his grandparents. That’s all I know. Since then, many people I’ve shown the picture of it to have puzzled over why it’s there and its meaning. But there has to be a special story behind that box.
The most common items left on graves (besides flowers) are stones and rocks. This is primarily a Jewish custom. In the Old Testament, the sons of Jacob and Rachel placed stones over their mother’s grave. This type of “cairn” grave is not common any more but you can see them from time to time.
One reason people place stones on graves is that they believe it keeps the soul down. This theory, with roots in the Talmud, cites that souls continue to dwell for a while in the graves in which they are placed. The grave, called a beit olam (a permanent home), was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul.
Rocks are favored over flowers on Jewish graves because flowers were considered pagan. Mind you, Jews do use flowers on other occasions such as Shabbat and other holidays. But in general, do not leave them on graves. Also, rocks have a more permanent symbolism than flowers, which fade and eventually die.
This practice has gone beyond Jewish custom and is now embraced by people of all faiths. The reason is simple. It’s an easy way to leave a small memento that someone was there to visit the grave, to honor the deceased.
Another common item left on graves is a coin. This practice has its origins in ancient Greek mythology. Kharon (or Charon) was the ferryman of the dead, an underworld demon. He received the shades of the dead from Hermes, who gathered them from the upper world and guided them to the shores of the Akheron, one of the five rivers in Hades.
From there, Kharon took them in his boat to a final resting place in Hades, the land of the dead, on the other side. The fee was a single obolos coin, which was placed in the mouth of a corpse at burial. Those who had not received due burial and were unable to pay their fee would be left to wander the earthly side of the Akheron (some say it is the River Styx and not the Akheron), haunting the upper world as ghosts.
In recent years, someone (whose name is unknown) wrote a primer on what certain coins mean when left on the grave of a person who served in the military. As an example, a nickel left on a grave supposedly means it was left by another serviceman who served with the deceased in boot camp. In my research, I’ve found nothing concrete to confirm these assertions yet.
It is true that military folk do sometimes leave special remembrances at the graves of deceased servicemen. They’re called challenge coins. These tokens identify their bearers as members of particular units and are prized and cherished by those to whom they’ve been given. Any challenge coins found at grave sites are almost always certainly left there by comrades-in-arms of the deceased.
After rocks and coins, what people leave on graves runs the gamut from the sad to the funny to the just plain weird (that box of hair qualifies). Statues of angels are popular. Some of you remember that on one of my first “hops”, I found some rubber snakes on a grave that made me jump about 10 feet.
At Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, visitors leave golf balls at the grave of legendary golfer Bobby Jones. People leave Campbell soup cans on artist Andy Warhol’s grave in homage to his famous painting of…a can of soup. Fans of Elvis leave scores of teddy bears on his grave at Graceland. I wonder if someone’s ever left a peanut butter and banana sandwich there.
One famous example involves the grave of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. Her ex-husband (and baseball legend) Joe DiMaggio set up an account with a local florist to put roses on Marilyn’s grave three times a week for 20 years after her death. He reportedly promised her on their wedding night that if anything were to happen to her he would honor her in some special way.
When I recently visited Kansas City, I wanted to see the grave of jazz legend Charlie Parker. It’s located far outside the city in a very out of the way cemetery. The little ceramic bird (with a real feather in it) left on his gravestone was simple but sweet.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter what token you leave behind when you visit someone’s grave. If it’s something you feel best expresses how you remember that person, that’s what matters most.
Even if it’s a box of hair.